by Ed Grystar writing at the US Marxism Leninism Today website
April 27, 2016
The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign has provided an excellent opportunity for the mass expression of previously untapped sentiment among rank and file union members. The campaign clearly shows that the public wants real political change that challenges the corporate domination of U.S. politics.
This upsurge has been percolating for years and has found a home with his campaign. Despite being dismissed by the “talking head” TV pundits on mainstream media, by elected Democrats in Congress, by some liberals, and by many in organized labor, he has accumulated millions of votes. He has run a formidable race effectively demolishing the myth that the U.S. working class is mired in conservatism and that any discussion of class-based politics and socialism is hopeless.
His main message directed against the “billionaire class”, rather than being a liability, has catapulted him forward. It has enabled him to build an impressive nationwide campaign which consists of record fund-raising through millions of small donors. A strong groundswell of everyday working people and youth has helped fuel the large crowds at his rallies throughout the country.
Sanders himself has remarked that he’s surprised by the public support, but no one should be surprised. His campaign issues of income inequality, job-killing corporate trade deals, mountainous student debt, declining wages, Wall Street bailouts, and for-profit health care have consistently garnered strong support in numerous polls over the past year.
Even more remarkable is the fact that the Sanders campaign’s anti-corporate message has resonated among the US people in spite of the fact that any mention of “socialism” has been vilified, ridiculed and slandered 24/7 by virtually everyone in power over the past 100 years. Sanders has clearly captured the visceral anger and budding class consciousness now emerging among many rank and file workers who want and need a political vehicle to fight back against the decades-long class war waged by Corporate America against labor.
This restlessness and a growing Left consciousness are what must be deepened and broadened. Still, despite this mass support, and Sanders’ own professed loyalty to the eventual nominee, his ideas have not found acceptance with the leadership of the Democratic Party. Only one US Senator and a handful of members of the House of Representatives have backed him. It’s the same story with local officials and the “super delegates” who are almost all in the camp of Hillary Clinton.
Will the Sanders supporters shift gears and close down his call for a “political revolution” and go campaign for Hillary Clinton? Will their future agenda consist of more debates and strategy sessions on how to transform and “take over” the Democratic Party? If so, how is this any different than the business-as-usual promotion of Lesser Evil voting?
Or, is this a critical juncture in history where the beginnings of a progressive, multi-racial, grassroots, mass political formation can be formed? Are the conditions ripe for the formation of a permanent, independent political movement that goes beyond merely organizing for an election every four years?
What Role for Labor? Independent Political Action or Lesser Evils?
In spite of the fact that Sanders epitomizes the soul of organized labor, is its staunchest ally on virtually all issues, has raised as much if not more campaign money than Clinton (almost all from small donors), refuses to take corporate donations, and polls equally as well as Clinton nationwide, the AFL-CIO has not endorsed his candidacy. While the AFL-CIO has not taken an official position of support for either Democratic candidate, individual national unions have made endorsements.
As of this date, the Nurses (NNU), Amalgamated Transit (ATU), Postal Workers (APWU), West Coast Longshoremen (ILWU), Transport Workers (TWU), Communication Workers (CWA) and Electrical Workers (UE) have endorsed Sanders, while the Teachers (AFT and NEA), Service Employees (SEIU), State, County, Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Laborers, Machinists (IAM), Government Employees (AFGE) and numerous building trades unions are supporting Clinton.
Others, like the Steelworkers (USW) and Autoworkers (UAW), even while facing ongoing corporate attacks on the wages and working conditions of their memberships have opted to “sit on the sidelines” and not make formal endorsements. The labor support for Sanders is primarily what constitutes the “Left” and “liberal” unions, as understood in US union politics. What will be the role of these labor groups after the primaries? Many will no doubt support Clinton too, but the dissatisfaction — and the possibilities — are evident. The necessity of nurturing a stronger and conscious Left current inside labor is crucial. It is even more telling is the total disregard of Sanders by most of organized labor, when viewed in the context of the enormous grassroots support for Sanders. By ignoring and minimizing his campaign, labor’s officialdom has not only done a disservice to its own members and the general public, but it has joined with the Clinton campaign and given a green light to “dumb down” as “impractical” many key labor issues that the Sanders campaign has shown to have widespread popular support.
It represents a snapshot of the problems organized labor’s political program faces in mobilizing for the Democratic nominee. Labor will have a tough road delivering the union vote for Clinton when she actually has a greater negative public opinion rating than Sanders, the “socialist.” How will labor campaign for Hillary Clinton, who is a member of one of the richest political families in US history. She and former president Bill Clinton were paid over $153 million from 2001 until the current election cycle for 729 speeches to corporate firms and lobbies, including 39 speeches to Wall Street investment houses where they were paid $7.7 million.
Rather than lift up and inspire unions, Hillary Clinton has also ridiculed and played down many of the AFL-CIO’s own positions such as support for single payer healthcare, a New Deal program to provide jobs to rebuild America by taxing the rich, and a $15 / hour minimum wage.
Another ugly fact is that Donald Trump’s right-wing “populist ” anti-immigration and “anti-trade “message has also resonated among many in the working class, especially those in white and small town communities. The Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal recently had articles highlighting such support for Trump in previously solid Democrat and working class areas such as Beaver County, Pennsylvania and Buchanan County, Virginia
Trump openly says he hopes that these voters will offset the defections he expects among traditional Republicans in the suburbs and among middle class women. Unfortunately, on the crucial issue of global trade, the leadership of organized labor continues its longstanding message of blaming “foreign competition” rather than corporate disinvestment and capitalism itself as the root cause of the shutdown of the country’s basic industries, the offshoring of jobs, and tax evasion. This losing approach has helped to sow the seeds of the racism that Trump now openly espouses.
Rather than mobilize the rank and file and the public for a massive jobs campaign to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure that would create demand in the basic industries with union jobs, the message of the top union leadership is one that confuses and disorients the rank and file. Instead of organizing, educating and mobilizing international solidarity among workers in each country, the policy of the top leaders pits workers of different countries against each other to benefit their employers, the multinational corporations. There’s only a very thin line between Trump’s immigrant-bashing and the official trade union line of blaming all job losses on “foreign competition.”
Even worse is that this approach is fundamentally harmful to the environment and encourages the type of macho American Exceptionalism which can only lead to more war.Even worse is that this approach is fundamentally harmful to the environment and encourages the type of macho American Exceptionalism which can only lead to more war. Without an independent antiwar movement, and with Sanders’ continued support for US intervention, creating a dialogue around international solidarity continues be a challenge for the Left.
While trade is a big issue that has motivated voters during this election cycle, the decline and stagnation of real wages, housing shortages, student debt, and the continued rise in health care costs have driven many workers to search for solutions that challenge the fundamentals of the system.
Even as Sanders campaigns as a Democrat — and he has already pledged his support to Clinton if he loses — the mood amongst his supporters shows that much more political independence is possible. Polls show that upwards of 30% of his backers will not support Hillary Clinton if she is the nominee. How will the many Sanders supporters, especially those in labor react if he does not win the nomination and throws his support to the Democratic nominee, most likely Hillary Clinton? It must be assumed that many will remain loyal Democrats and vote for Hillary. Others will drop out, become demoralized and disillusioned since their candidate was not victorious. However, there are many thousands more that are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the big business two-party duopoly and want a real alternative movement. They are open to a break with the Democrats.
These are real issues that can’t be solved without labor moving to discard its current strategy and tactics. It needs a strategy whose primary goal is educating, mobilizing, and fighting for a principled program that meets the needs of the vast majority in the working class, not one beholden to the Democratic Party. Labor needs to break from the business union approach to collective bargaining and politics. It needs a conscious organized formation that can be a guidepost for labor to go on the offensive against ongoing corporate and political attacks.
The 2016 Choices: Political Independence or Hillary Clinton
All of the crucial working class issues raised by the Sanders campaign need a year-round organizing presence in the workplaces and in the communities. This can and must be the backbone and starting point of a real popular and progressive movement. It’s a movement not only necessary but realistically possible to form. A critical mass of public support exists for such a formation.
Without such an effort, the energy and momentum of the Sanders campaign simply dies. Nothing remains but waiting for the next “candidate.” Organizing and mobilizing in the workplaces and communities will be absolutely necessary if we are serious about fighting the enormous battles ahead and if we are to win concrete victories on the demands raised by the Sanders campaign. Without such mass organization, the ruling class will surely squash, co-opt,or marginalize these demands.
Witness the capitulation of labor leaders and the Democrats when single payer was simply dropped from the agenda by Obama and the Democrats in Congress. The surveillance and police presence that doomed “Occupy Wall Street ” is another example of the need for independent organization and people power on the ground.
What about the question of supporting Hillary as an alternative to Donald Trump or any of the other Republicans? The ruling class has started to view Clinton, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “as the most business-friendly option given her resume, her close relations to corporate donors and her message of delivering pragmatic results.” None other than far-right billionaire, Charles Koch told ABC News that he would consider supporting Clinton over Trump or Cruz, the likely Republican nominees. He also praised the presidency of Bill Clinton when compared to that of George W. Bush.
Sanders is also starting to face more Democratic Party criticisms that it’s time he scales down the tone of his attacks on Hillary and work toward “unity.” These are signals and codewords that the rightward drift of the 2016 campaign has begun. It should be taken seriously by workers who feel that there are reasons for backing Clinton.
What are the alternatives to a vote for Clinton in November? First, a recognition that breaking the duopoly of the two major parties among the working class and general public is crucial. Working to move a growing section of people who are dissatisfied with the political “choices” on offer from the two major parties by holding or participating in debates, forums, town hall meetings can be a tactic. It’s also important to recognize that there exist strong currents of public opinion for other electoral choices in addition to those disgruntled Sandernistas.
A Gallup poll issued on September 25, 2015 was headlined “Majority in U.S. Maintain Need for Third Major Party.” It reported that “a majority of Americans, 60%, say a third major political party is needed because the Republican and Democratic parties do such a poor job of representing the American people.” Youth are especially dissatisfied.
A recent Harvard Institute for Politics poll cited young voters, nearly half of whom said that “politics today was not up to meeting the challenges facing the country.”
In these discussions about the need for independence, one way would be to work and campaign to help grow a critical mass of presidential votes for the Green Party. In the absence of a mass labor party, the Green Party platform is a credible and progressive alternative. It has potential for mass appeal, especially to Sanders supporters, to labor, above all, to youth. It stands in stark contrast to that of the two major parties. On the local and state levels, there may be independents or some Democrats that are worthy of support.
These efforts around the 2016 elections are tactical. They complement the necessary, fundamental work to build a legitimate, progressive third party rooted in the movements for peace, labor, civil rights, etc. We need to raise our voices with concrete and sound arguments for making a Left turn. Holding our noses and voting for the “Lesser Evil” Democrats will guarantee that we continue the previous road of bogus “hope and change.” That road is now openly pot-holed and in disrepair.
Don’t fall for the detour that has led us to greater income inequality, more wars, bank bailouts, skyrocketing student debt, privatizations, all with Big Capital fully in control of the political process.
Let’s use this opportunity to make a Left turn at this crossroads, the only path to a better future.
Ed Grystar served as the Western Pennsylvania labor coordinator for Jesse Jackson for President in 1988 and the Pennsylvania coordinator for the Dennis Kucinich presidential campaign in 2004. He has worked for over 40 years in the labor, peace , and health care justice movements and served as the President of the Butler County, Pennsylvania, United Labor Council for 15 years.